We had been told that a car and driver was the best mode of travel for our two-week trip in Sri Lanka, and the advice was spoton. We set out to do a loop around the southern part of the island and although the distances seemed minimal on paper, getting from point A to point B always took a lot longer: a trip of say, 150km could easily take more than four hours because of traffic and road conditions. But having a driver made the trip easier for us in so many ways and Silva, our driver from Total Holiday Options, looked after us very well.

After we arrived at Colombo the first day of our trip took us quite a long way northeast to the Pinnawalla Elephant Orphanage and then north to Dambulla and the famous Dambulla Cave Temples – about 160 km in all. The ancient cave temples, up to 2,000 years old, are also known as the Royal Rock Temple and have more than 100 paintings and statues of Buddha. As it is a place of high religious importance we needed to remove our shoes, which was quite interesting when you are walking on stones that have been exposed to 36-degree-Celsius heat all day!

The next day we ventured up the Sigriya Rock Fortress which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The summit offers spectacular views over the countryside but that is definitely for the fit and energetic. On the way up the rock face there are several notable historic sites. One of the highlights in this area was an afternoon elephant safari in nearby Minneriya National Park. We were taken around in a private jeep with a local guide and were lucky enough to see four herds of elephants and which we stopped and watched for a good while. At one point a mother and baby walked right in front of our jeep.

Next we ventured 100km south to Kandy, the second-largest city in Sri Lanka. It is set on a plateau surrounded by mountains and the weather was volatile with thunderstorms happening on and off. We visited the famous Buddhist temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and as it happened to be a full moon day it was incredibly busy. The 60-hectare Royal Botanical Gardens were also a surprise and are well worth a visit.

One of our most unusual encounters was an unexpected visit in the early hours of the morning by a wild elephant.

Another highlight of our time in Kandy was attending an authentic cooking class at a family home. In Sri Lanka homes are passed down from one generation to the next and this particular property had been in the family for several centuries. Before we watched our lunch being cooked we went to the local markets to buy the fresh produce for it. The kitchen in the home was the original one – over 300 years old – and the cooking was done over an open fire.

From Kandy we went by tourist train to Nuwara Eliya, a city in the tea country hills of central Sri Lanka, with Silva following by road with our luggage and meeting us off the train.

The journey to Nuwara Eliya through very diverse countryside was really beautiful, and the tourist-class cabins in the train were considerably more comfortable than the ones the locals were travelling in behind. You do see a lot of absolute poverty in Sri Lanka but the locals seem happy and always smiling. Nuwara Eliya is 1868 metres above sea level so in one day we went from 34 degrees C to 14 C. – a good thing the jackets were packed! The cool highlands were popular during colonial times and that is evident from the building styles and surroundings.

Next it was time to head southeast to the coast via the small hill country town of Ella. The road goes past many tea plantations and the scenery was stunning. At one point we drove past some tea pickers and stopped to take a photo. You always have to pay 100 rupees (about $NZ1) to the person you ask for a photo but many hands come out to collect it!

Ninety kilometres on at Yala National Park we had one of our most unusual encounters when we were upgraded to a tented villa overnight – and received an unexpected visit in the early hours of the morning by a wild elephant.

The last part of our journey took us along the coast to Galle, whose 16th-century Portuguese fort was taken over by the Dutch who used the city as a port and naval base for 150 years. By the time Galle passed into British hands in 1796 most of the commercial shipping had moved to Colombo. Galle is now home to more than 400 historic churches, mosques, homes and government buildings.

Speaking of things left behind, there is still evidence along the coast of the 2004 tsunami which took 37,000 lives in Sri Lanka. You pass many properties that look abandoned and Silva explained that because houses are passed down through family generations in Sri Lanka the houses have been left empty because there was no one left in the family to come back and claim the land.

Most of Silva’s comments and commentaries – on politics and life in Sri Lanka and roadside sights – were on much happier things though and I highly recommend a car and driver as the way to get around. It lent a real personal touch to all that we saw and learned and enjoyed in this spectacular destination.